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Train ride full of memories

Five-hour ride became a marathon trip

By: Susan Jones

  |  Posted: Saturday, Dec 21, 2013 06:00 am

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These days it's not unusual for kids to go to work with their parents but in the 1950s few of us got to see Dad at work.

Somehow Dad, who was a conductor on the CNR, had finagled a Christmas Eve trip to Calgary so the whole family went too on the same train so we could visit my grandfather. It was the only time such an event took place. One whiff of mandarin oranges, and I am mentally back on that train chug-chugging along with what seemed to be half of Alberta.

It was cold and snowing so all the windows were frosted over by the time we climbed on board. There was Dad, in his navy suit, cheerfully telling us, "All-aboard!"

"We're going to be slow," he whispered to Mom. "They are full up already so they're going to add an extra car."

It was steamy inside as people shuffled into their seats and tried to rearrange them so they could all sit together across from each other. We did the same and soon coats, mittens and toques were stacked on top of Christmas parcels next to us. My brother put his feet up on the parcels until Mother pointed out that something might break, and it might be his present.

It was supper time, so with the conductor warning we would be delayed, every mother pulled out oniony egg sandwiches, which were wrapped in layers of wax paper. It was as if we were on a gigantic, multi-family picnic. The communal nature of the event, plus the fact that it was Christmas Eve, got everyone visiting and it wasn't long before strangers were offering each other's kids shortbread or striped ribbons of hard candy and of course oranges. Everyone had oranges.

Most people would have driven to Calgary from Edmonton. Or at the very least, they would have taken the faster, more direct CPR. But we had railroad passes so we took the slow train that went through every little town east of Edmonton. That Christmas night, lots of families only travelled 10 miles to the next town. It was so hot on the train, they would unbundle and then bundle up again to venture outside. You could hear their families greeting them, "Hello! How was the trip? Merry, Christmas!" It was the same at every town.

Then other folks would climb onboard and at times there was an overload. Then, my Dad broke the rules and let them sit in the aisles on their own Christmas gifts. People squished over, at first a bit reluctantly, but in the end cheerfully, so that everyone had a seat. The heat on the train climbed with every new person that got on board. Once again, out came another round of shortbread and oranges.

The lady in the seat across from us was on her own, with a fussy baby, just a few weeks old.

First the lady tried to give Baby a bottle. He pushed it out with his tongue and howled louder. She wrapped him up tightly and then, as other mothers got involved and suggested he might be too warm, he was unwrapped again. She jiggled him. She patted him. She changed his diaper. She offered another bottle.

"Can't you give that baby a bottle?" someone called uselessly from the back of the train.

She tried, but the same thing happened. Baby shoved the rubber nipple out with his tongue. He was red in the face and so was his sweating mother, who kept up the jiggling and the bouncing to no avail.

This led to some whispered exchanges between my mother and the infant's mother. In that puritanical age, neither of them could bring themselves to say the word "breast" out loud but it seemed the baby was normally "nursed." This presented a problem because everyone on the train was by now involved in the baby's crying. He sounded like a little siren and there was no stopping him. The infant cried so hard and so loud, he almost drowned out my dad's "all-aboard" calls at each new town.

My mother suggested the best thing to do was to cover the baby and his "nursing" mother with an overcoat. Somehow the poor woman huddled under her thick coat. She covered her head and upper body but left her boot-covered feet sticking out, and I suppose, began the procedure. It was probably +25 C on that train. Those who weren't worrying about the baby's crying were complaining about the heat. Goodness knows how hot it was under the parka.

About this time, Dad came down the aisle calling out, "Tickets!" "Tickets please!"

As he approached the new mother and child, the baby let out the loudest wail of all. The little guy was starving and hot and probably half suffocated too

Then everyone heard the lady exclaim, "Eat will you! Eat baby! If you don't want it, I'll give it to the conductor."

That did it. My mother jumped out of her seat. She took the baby and began walking up and down the aisle with him. Now she was jiggling and offering him a bottle. Soon she and Dad were passing each other in the train aisle as he collected tickets and she soothed the baby. Dad ran his finger back and forth over his lips as he blew out a kind of, "bbbl!" noise. My parents grinned at each other. The new mother stopped sweating and the guy at the back of the train started eating his oranges and stopped yelling advice.

"Eat your oranges," my mother said to my brother and me, "And mind your own business!"

So we did. I don't know if Dad ever got the new mother's ticket or not but I think the baby stopped yelling before we got to the station in Calgary.

"Merry Christmas!" Dad said, as all his remaining passengers climbed off. "Peace and good will to you all!"


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